Eyes on the Prize(s): As Bredesen Assays the State of the State, He and Others Look to Move Up

| February 10, 2009

NASHVILLE - As "State of the State" messages go, the one delivered Monday night by Governor Phil Bredesen, who is awaiting congressional action on stimulus funds for the states, was best described as a holding action. Lacking in both drama and specifics, the address took place against a backdrop of some intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering that was paradoxically intense.

Most significantly, Bredesen, who began his speech with a decided pitch for bipartisanship, was known to be hankering for a change of venue - one that would whisk him away to Washington, D.C. as President Obama's new Secretary of Health and Human Services and leave behind as governor a man from the opposition party, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville.

Ramsey, who, as the presiding officer of the state Senate, sat honorifically on the House of Representatives dais behind Bredesen as the governor spoke, had to be somewhat preoccupied with this prospect, even as the man who sat beside him, House Speaker Kent Williams, was surely entertaining a thought or two about his own change of status - effected that very day by his formal banishment from the state Republican Party as a bona fide member.

And up there on a front row of the chamber, just under Bredesen's nose, was a longtime antagonist within his own party, House Democratic leader Gary Odom of Nashville, who had engineered Williams' now famous switcheroo from what had presumably been a unified GOP House majority-of-one to vote, along with 48 Democrats, for himself as Speaker, (The squelchee of that astonishing action, House Republican leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, was up there close, too, on Monday night - for the moment more spectator than main actor.)

Earlier on Monday, Odom had responded to Williams' banishment from the GOP with an invitation to the Speaker, who continued to view himself as a "Carter County Republican," to come on over and formally join the Democrats. While that was an unlikely outcome - just now, anyhow - it could hardly be considered an impossibility, given that it had been Odom, a transplant from Carter County in far-off East Tennessee himself, who had talked Williams into taking part in the Speakership coup in the first place.

That particular piece of legerdemain was in the past, however. As he confided later Monday night, Odom had other fish to fry. Asked who might be a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2010 against such Republicans as Ramsey or Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam or Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp or District Attorney Bill Gibbons of Memphis or whomever, Odom answered, "I might run myself."

So might Odom's opposite number in the other chamber, Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, of course. And other Democratic names were potentially in the hat - those of former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. (though no one really thought the nationally oriented Ford would be a candidate), Knoxville publisher and former party chairman Doug Horne, state Senator Roy Herron of Dresden, former House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville, and state Senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga.

But Odom, who has of late made his bones in the same way Michael Corleone made his, will have to be reckoned with.


Bredesen's known willingness to head off to D.C. should the call come, elevating Republican Ramsey to the governorship, bespeaks both the former health-care executive's innate middle-of-the-road nature and his dissatisfaction with recent party votes, including the recent rejection by the state Democratic executive committee of Charles Robert Bone, the governor's (and other VIPs') preferred candidate to be state party chairman, in favor of the landslide winner, rank-and-file champion Chip Forrester.
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ome key Democrats, understandably, want Bredesen to stay in place. Others are actively promoting his move to Washington on the novel theory that an incumbent Ramsey would be an easier foe in 2010 than several of his current GOP rivals.

Candidate Gibbons last week gave two strong signals of his approach to the governor's race. Speaking to the Republican Women of Purpose at Ridgeway Country Club, he told an affecting tale of growing up in an impoverished south Arkansas household that was abandoned by an alcoholic father and forced into foreclosure of the family farm. This Horatio Alger tale of success against all odds makes for a nice contrast to the background of oil-empire heir Haslam, perhaps the Memphian's chief rival.

Gibbons' other move was to propose a state law abolishing residency requirements for police, a de facto intervention in the current Memphis city-government controversy.

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